Of Wild Winter Steelhead, Sea Lions, and Crisis Management


Since the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) released a press statement at Willamette Falls, there has been a public outcry about the conflict between wild winter steelhead and sea lions. Dr. Shaun Clements, senior policy analyst with ODFW, said in a statement “We know what the problem is and have seen this coming for about a decade, we just couldn’t take action to prevent it.” Dr. Clements is referring to is an effort by many groups to modify the Marine Mammal Protection Act which would allow the department to lethally remove California Sea Lions from the area surrounding Willamette Falls. The festering finger pointing that has stalled out a majority of the actions that could be taken to help Willamette Steelhead has finally come to a head. Currently, there are two bills moving forward in congress, both through the House (House of Representatives Bill 2083) and the Senate (Senate Bill 1702) to modify the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Act currently does not allow lethal removal of sea lions, even when they endanger other protected species. ODFW’s science team just released a Population Viability Analysis (PVA) assessing the effect sea lion associated mortality has on wild winter steelhead at Willamette Falls. The report indicates “Sea lions have a large negative effect on the viability of winter steelhead.”


North Santiam

South Santiam



No Sea Lions





2015 Sea Lions





Average Sea Lions





2017 Sea Lions





Table 1. Percentages of quasi-extinction over a 100 year period in four populations of Willamette River winter steelhead under four different scenarios. Scenarios with sea lions assume that the predation mortality estimated during that year will continue indefinitely. The lowest predation rate was observed in 2015 and the highest predation rate was observed in 2017.

As predators of Endangered Species Act-listed winter steelhead, spring chinook, lamprey, sturgeon, and other fishes native and non-native to the Willamette, the sea-lions have been increasing in numbers and the department has declared that wild steelhead are on the verge of extinction in the Willamette because of this crisis. However, the Department’s own analysis also shows one of the populations, the Calapooia, is headed for extinction regardless of what is done with sea lions.

Wild Winter Steelhead Passage at Willamette Falls 1971-2017

For River Stewards working on the recovery and protection of these fish, this newest report only provides part of the story. Winter steelhead have been declining for at least four and a half decades, falling from over 25,000 winter steelhead in 1971-72 to just 822 in the 2016-17 run year. Of those 822 fish, only 512 were estimated to return to the 4 core populations included in the analysis. The shifting baseline of wild steelhead decline in the Willamette started well before these data were taken with intense splash dam logging, gravel mining, and industrial development occurring since the 1860s. Willamette Winter Steelhead and Spring Chinook were listed as threatened species in 1999 due to the continued degradation of habitat below, and lack of passage over federally owned dams, the negative impacts of mitigation hatcheries, and recreational and commercial harvest concerns. In response, several management plans have been put in place in the Willamette including the Fisheries Evaluation and Management Plan (2001), the Willamette Biological Opinion(2008), and the National Marine Fisheries Service's’ Recovery Plan (2011). Due to recommendations within these plans direct harvest has been reduced, incidental harvest through commercial fisheries has been reduced, and hatchery operations have been limited to summer steelhead, resident rainbows, and spring chinook production.

Detroit Dam, seen from above, blocks 70% of the historical habitat in the North Santiam watershed

But even as River Stewards throughout the basin carefully followedthe abysmal returns of wild winter steelhead over Willamette Falls early in the 2016-2017 run year, no action was taken by fisheries managers. This lack of action led River Steward Dave Carpenter to reach out to the governor's office, district fisheries biologists, Fish and Wildlife Commissioners, and local senate and house representatives, urging them to address the many threats facing these fish. Currently, in many of the Willamette tributaries it is legal to fish for winter steelhead during their spawning period, and the use of bait is allowed while juveniles are rearing in freshwater. Simple actions, like shutting down the catch and release fishery can take place on an emergency basis. But there was a problem, no one had determined an escapement number, or the number of fish which need to return to the spawning grounds, an important number necessary to take in-season action and sustain the population into the future. ODFW even hosted a "learn to steelhead fish 101" class when only a handful of fish had entered the system. The research, monitoring, and evaluation has not been developed to say if and when we need to adaptively reduce our various impacts to these fish species. While it is easy to articulate the effect of a single factor, such as sea lion predation, the solution to wild steelhead recovery is more elusive. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, during the in-season period of this years steelhead run offered the following statement:

Part of the reason for this year's decline may be the horrific water conditions that existed during outmigration for many steelhead smolts during the winter and spring of 2015. As you recall we endured one of the worst droughts on record, exacerbated by a heat wave that elevated stream temperatures markedly in spring and early summer. Sea lion predation could also be a factor, given the ever-growing numbers in both the Willamette and the Columbia rivers. They feed both on upstream migrating winter steelhead adults and out-migrating juveniles below the falls, taking an estimated minimum of 15% of the Willamette bound adult in 2016. Understand that additional mortality is occurring in the river below the falls as well.”

Indeed, these fish did experience a triple whammy of environmental conditions which contributed to their poor survival. A drought in 2015 caused many streams throughout the upper Willamette to dewater, including Courtney Creek, a high priority tributary in the Calapooia watershed. Oregon has been found ill-equipped to solve water quantity challenges and public and private efforts have stalled to address water quality concerns. For juvenile steelhead which were able to survive the poor freshwater conditions, they were also subjected to some of the worst conditions we’ve seen in the ocean since the late 1990s. When anadromous fish entered the ocean, poor upwelling along the Northwest Pacific Coast in the 2014-2016 years likely led to to very low juvenile survival for Willamette Steelhead. When Winter Steelhead were foraging through the North Pacific, these fish encountered “the blob", a deadly patch of warm water in the North Pacific during the summer of 2015 and into 2016, leading to poor survival of sub-adult steelhead in the ocean.

Dewatered Courtney Creek, of the Calapooia River, in the drought of 2015

Once the fish returned to freshwater they were caught in recreational and commercial gillnet fisheries throughout the Lower Columbia River, not intentionally but as bycatch-- the unintended consequence of trying to keep fisheries open when small populations of ESA listed fish are passing through. The effect of this harvest is assumed to be low, but poor data, and a lack of fisheries observers calls into question whether or not that assumption is true. NOAA Researcher Bill Petersen showing the poor ocean conditions in 2015-2016 in his stoplight chart.

It’s at this point that adult wild winter steelhead would be subjected to sea lion mortality. With an increasing number of California sea lions showing up in the Willamette River, scientists estimated that 25% of the steelhead that returned to Willamette Falls in 2016 were consumed by these marine mammals. If we extrapolate the 25% predation estimate out to the 2017 return year, and add that number back into the total number of fish returning, the counts of winter steelhead at Willamette Falls would still be the lowest on record. In 2017, River Steward Nick Rowell provided anecdotal observations on the Clackamas River of sea lions moving up into the river to prey on spawning winter steelhead. It is no question that sea lions moving this far into freshwater, feeding at times on spawning fish, are having a negative effect. In Washington State, Sea Lions drove a population of steelhead that moved through the ballard locks in Seattle to near extirpation. However, indicators within the larger ecosystem point to a larger collapse of prey items with lamprey, forage fish and other food sources for sea lions such as sardines, sand lance, achovies, and herring also struggling in the poor ocean conditions. Where do we draw the line in our efforts to control predators? In one study, avian predators in small Central California creeks wiped out 100% of endangered steelhead and coho salmon. Do we also start culling Water Oozles, Blue Herons, Hooded Mergansers, Kingfishers, Salmon Sharks, and Orca Whales if we have data that shows their impacts?

Once the fish return to their homewaters in the North and South Santiam watersheds, native fish often can’t reach their historical habitat due to incomplete or partial fish passage at dams. For example, the Minto Fish Passage facility, which was built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2013, has not been able to pass wild winter steelhead or spring chinook upstream into their historical habitat because their offspring will have no way to migrate downstream through the reservoirs after they are born. The $27.4 million dollar facility opened in 2013 but plans to provide downstream at Detroit reservoir have been stalled, and the timeline remains uncertain to start construction. An estimated 70% of the historical steelhead habitat in the North Santiam lies above Big Cliff and Detroit Dams.

The Minto Collection Facility under construction.

The earliest juvenile wild steelhead would naturally pass through Detroit Reservoir on their way to the ocean is 2023, the deadline for providing full fish passage in the Willamette Biological Opinion. Currently, wild steelhead are being taken out of the population and their offspring are being raised at the Oregon Hatchery Research science center before being out-planted above Detroit Reservoir. The juveniles are then being tracked as they make their way downstream in ongoing research projects.

Another factor weighing on the population of winter steelhead is the department’s own stocking of non-native hatchery summer steelhead, and hatchery rainbow trout. ODFW releases hundreds of thousands of these fish every year, which pose ecological and genetic risks to native winter steelhead. Hatchery summer steelhead smolts are planted at a much larger size than juvenile winter steelhead and often residualize, or stay in the river instead of going to the ocean. These holdover summer steelhead then compete with native winter steelhead for food and other resources. Hatchery winter and summer steelhead can also spawn together, yielding unfit hybrids of the two distinct life histories. Stocked rainbow trout, like sea lions, can also directly prey upon juvenile ESA-listed winter steelhead and spring chinook. Recently, a lawsuit was filed by the Willamette Riverkeeper and the Conservation Angler alleging that hatchery summer run steelhead programs are putting ESA listed winter steelhead in jeopardy.

The Marion Forks Fish Hatchery rears summer steelhead and Chinook, which are put in tributaries of the Willamette as mitigation for the federal dams.

While the effect of sea lion predation shown by ODFW researchers weighs heavily on the probability of one or more of the Willamette steelhead populations will go extinct over the next 100 years, other factors discussed above were not analyzed to weigh their individual contribution to the problems facing wild winter steelhead. Pinniped predation may be critical threat moving forward, but it was not the sole factor responsible for the abysmal run in 2017.

In 2021, wild winter steelhead are likely to be downlisted from threatened to endangered under the Endangered Species Act. We take very seriously Dr. Clements statement that, “We are at a point where any more delays in the Willamette may condemn this run to extinction.”

We need to move forward on all factors that don’t require congressional approval, and continue to address the largest factors affecting the persistence of this unique run of fish. The root threats to the persistence of threatened Willamette Winter Steelhead and Spring Chinook are complex, and while the effect of sea lion predation is important, it isn’t the reason wild winter steelhead face extinction. River Stewards in the upper Willamette Basins have been calling on fisheries managers to:

  • Shut down fisheries which encounter these ESA-listed fish, especially when their population size dips below 500 individuals.
  • Reform hatchery practices, reduce non-native summer steelhead, and residualized smolts on the spawning grounds.
  • Restore access to historical habitat, especially by providing juvenile passage at the Army Corps of Engineers Dams like Detroit.
  • Invest in solutions to the immediate and systemic problems of wild fish decline.

Paramount to all of these actions is that we establish an escapement, or threshold for each population, at which we limit the array of threats we have immediate control over. We can’t operate under crisis management to recover any listed species and we have to empower communities to move forward on all fronts of native fish conservation.

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